SET Women and Careers: A Case Study of Senior Female Scientists in the UK

SET Women and Careers: A Case Study of Senior Female Scientists in the UK

Susan Durbin (University of the West of England, United Kingdom)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-657-5.ch011


Very few studies of senior female scientists have been conducted in the UK. This chapter explores the careers of 13 senior female scientists in a male-dominated, UK public sector organisation. These women operate within a context which reinforces, ‘think management, think male’ (Schein 2007). Despite this, they have followed traditional career paths of science qualifications and employment. Whilst many parallels can be drawn with other women in science, engineering and technology (SET) these women buck the trend in that they have achieved senior positions and unusually long lengths of service, post-childbirth, despite little or no help from mentors and support networks. Although these women’s experiences of gender relations were variable and they have limited strategic leadership career options, they have sustained a positive work orientation and a strong desire to reputation-build. Notwithstanding their failure so far to break through the glass ceiling, they hold the potential to be role models for others in SET.
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Background: Women In Set

In their study of SET employees, Wynarczyk and Renner (2006) report that just two percent of women hold senior managerial level jobs in SET, which is far lower than for women in other sectors. In addition, while the gender division at lower levels of organisations may be improving, this, in common with other sectors, has not resulted in proportionate numbers of women progressing into strategic leadership levels. With an estimated shortfall of 300,000 SET recruits over the next few years, this will have huge ramifications (The Independent, 2008).

In 2008, SET occupations1 represented 3,142,127 of the UK workforce, of whom 595,606 were female and 2,546,521 male. In the same period, there were a total of 1,112,483 SET managers2, of whom 153,951 were women and 958,532 men and 133,665 ‘Science Professionals’3 of whom 52,615 were women and 81,050 men (UKRC, 2009). Men are six times more likely than women to be employed as SET managers and one and a half times more likely to be employed as Science Professionals. Across 17 EU member states, just three can boast a rate of over 40% for female representation on scientific Boards (Norway, Finland and Sweden) while the UK figure is 31%. Cyprus and Poland have the lowest rates, at just 7% (European Commission, 2006).

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